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West & Down reopened on March 13 at 50% capacity to comply with city guidelines.

Credit: Max Mester

Popular University City nightclub West & Down has drawn long lines since its reopening last month, raising concerns from students who allege the club is breaking Philadelphia's COVID-19 guidelines. 

The club, located on 38th and Chestnut streets, reopened on March 13 after closing in light of the pandemic, West & Down manager Eric Haff said. While Haff emphasized that West & Down has been operating in accordance with city guidelines, some students who have been in the club and witnessed long lines outside the club expressed doubts about safety. 

The city of Philadelphia currently limits establishments serving food and drinks indoors to 25% capacity, or 50% capacity if they meet ventilation guidelines, and requires customers to wear masks except when eating or drinking while seated. Haff said the club is operating at 50% capacity to comply with city guidelines.

Since reopening a month ago, Haff said West & Down has had many students from local universities, including Penn, Drexel University, Temple University, and Rowan University, attend the club. He confirmed that Penn's greek life organizations in particular have reserved tables frequently since its reopening.

A College sophomore, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, went to West & Down in early April after being invited by a fellow Penn student and noticed that the club was crowded with students who they believed were likely from the city or surrounding areas. They said Penn students had made up some, but not the majority, of the crowd, adding that they only recognized a handful of people. 

Though the sophomore, who is involved in Greek life, said they were fully vaccinated, they worried that most people at the club were not. About 23% of Philadelphia residents are fully vaccinated, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, and 12.42% are partially vaccinated.

They estimated that the club was “definitely filled to [normal] capacity, if not over,” adding that they thought the club contained enough people to potentially be a fire hazard.  

“You know during Prohibition, how they had speakeasies where people would go and drink alcohol because alcohol was there? And it was kind of illicit?” the College sophomore asked. “That was what it felt like.”

Upon entering the club, the sophomore said they could not remember seeing anyone inside who was masked. Philadelphia has enforced a mask mandate since June, which requires all individuals in public indoor spaces to wear masks when not eating or drinking, and to maintain six feet of distance when mask-wearing is not possible. The sophomore said, however, that West & Down did not seem to follow any COVID-19 precautions at all.

“It did not appear to me that [West & Down] is taking COVID-19 very seriously,” the sophomore said. 

Wharton junior Sam Scott, who lives in Hamilton Court, an apartment building above West & Down, said that since reopening, he has regularly seen lines outside the club on weekends. Scott said a line of eight to 10 people typically gathers early in the night, and grows as the night goes on. A Wharton sophomore, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, said they witnessed a long line of students outside West & Down in early April that spanned the entire block of Chestnut between 38th and 39th streets.

Due to city regulations, Haff said that only people with reservations ahead of time are allowed in and that the club often has to turn people away due to capacity restrictions. West & Down has also added more tables to make up for the loss of bar service due to city regulations, he said.

“We're still taking a hit, but it's better than not being open,” Haff said. 

For the most part, the College sophomore said that people seemed to need table reservations to get in, but added they heard from a friend that there was also a shorter list of club “regulars” who were admitted as walk-ins, and they noticed this the night they went to West & Down themselves.

West & Down typically offers bar service, and is a popular spot for Penn students looking for an alternative to fraternity parties and local bar Smokey Joe's. In addition to hosting crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, the club has weekly “White Claw Wednesday” events, featuring a discounted price of $3 for the spiked seltzers.

The College sophomore added that while most of the club attendees were drinking, nothing they observed was unsafe behavior — other than the fact that it was occurring during the pandemic. 

“I didn't see anything that was concerning other than the fact that [there were] a ton of people breaking COVID-19 guidelines, which is pretty concerning in and of itself,” they said. “It seemed pretty normal for pre-COVID-19, if not a little bit crazier than pre-COVID-19 times.” 

Prior to its COVID-19 closure, West & Down was forced to close temporarily in January 2020 due to a zoning and license violation, but reopened on Feb. 5, 2020. 

Philadelphia Department of Public Health Communications Director James Garrow wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that if establishments in the city have minor infractions, the city will work with them to better meet the guidelines. But if there is a large violation or repeated violations, the city can order the establishment to cease operations.

"Their ability to follow these restrictions will allow us to keep people safe, and case counts down," Garrow wrote. 

Philadelphia is currently witnessing a rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley announced on Tuesday. The city had an average of 586 new cases per day last week, up from 581 the previous week. Penn, however, has seen a continued decrease in COVID-19 cases since a mid-March spike caused by spring break travel. 

In light of these rising case counts, some students questioned both the club's decision to reopen and students' decision to attend.

“Given that most people I know who are on campus aren’t fully vaccinated, it's probably a little bit irresponsible for it to be open so soon,” Scott said.

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